The Presidential Nominating Contests

The Democratic Nomination

Because the election context appeared so favorable to Democrats in 2008, a number of highly qualified candidates contested the nomination. In polls taken throughout 2007, the leading candidate was Senator Hillary Clinton. She certainly had the greatest name recognition of all of the candidates, and she had strong connections with party leaders and operatives, based in large part on her husband's presidency. However, many Democrats regarded her as a polarizing figure and wondered if she would be electable. Running second in the polls in late 2007 was Senator Barack Obama. He lacked the political experience of Clinton, having been elected to the U.S. Senate only in 2004, prior to which time he was just a state legislator. Nevertheless, Obama was a strong candidate. He already had attracted considerable attention, partly because he had written two best-selling books, and he was considered a rising star in the party. He also proved to be adept at raising campaign funds. The fact that he would be the first African American nominated for president by a major party also focused attention on his candidacy. However, some Democrats thought that he would be a stronger candidate after serving in Washington for a few more years. Former Senator John Edwards, who was a contender for the nomination in 2004, also was considered a strong candidate. He was an energetic and effective campaigner during the 2004 presidential primaries, which led to his becoming the vice presidential nominee that year. However, some Democrats were disappointed with his campaign effort during the 2004 general election. Also, he did not seek reelection to the Senate in 2004, so he was out of public office and thus was less visible than candidates such as Clinton and Obama. Two other Senators, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, also were serious candidates, but even though both had many years of service in the Senate, they had difficulty attracting campaign funds and support. Both were considered long shots for the nomination, but both had the potential to move up in the race if the front runners faltered badly. Finally, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, the only Hispanic candidate in the race, had a strong resume that combined significant legislative and executive experience: he had been a member of Congress, a cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration, and a UN ambassador before being elected governor.

The nomination contests began with the Iowa caucuses. Obama was the clear winner, capturing about 38 percent of the precinct delegates, compared to slightly under 30 percent for Edwards and Clinton (Espo and Glover 2008). The unexpectedly decisive victory for Obama encouraged his supporters. The third place finish for Clinton was particularly disappointing for her backers. The next contest was the New Hampshire primary, and a defeat there might have effectively ended Clinton's campaign. Pre-primary polls showed Obama in the lead, but they did not accurately forecast the outcome. Clinton won a surprising victory, keeping her candidacy alive. Obama placed second, with Edwards and Richardson trailing. Following the New Hampshire event, the race moved quickly to become a contest between Obama and Clinton. The other candidates found it difficult to attract money and support and withdrew in short order.

Most presidential nomination contests are decided fairly quickly. One candidate emerges from the early contests with considerable momentum and wins a majority of the delegates well before the end of the primary season. The 2008 Democratic nomination did not follow this pattern. Obama continued as the leader, but Clinton continued to win enough delegates to keep her in the race. Victories in Ohio and Pennsylvania encouraged her supporters, some of whom argued that Obama could not win the votes of white blue-collar voters, a critical constituency for a Democratic candidate. The decisive battle took place in May in North Carolina. Obama won by a wide margin. From that point on, it appeared that Clinton had little chance of overcoming Obama's lead in delegates, and she withdrew from the race in early June.

It supposedly is advantageous to a presidential candidate to secure the nomination early. This gives time to the candidate to unify the party and to begin to attack his general election opponent. Resources that might have been spend on primary contests now can be directed toward the general election effort. This logic may not have applied to Obama in 2008. His lengthy battle for the nomination helped, rather than hurt, him in many ways. First, it focused more attention on him than would have been the case if there had not been the intense conflict between him and Clinton. As someone who was less familiar to the voters, the increased exposure was a benefit. Second, Obama built an unprecedented campaign organization, developing a base of workers in many states. This organization continued in most cases into the general election. For example, he built a strong organization for the North Carolina primary, and that organization later helped him to narrowly carry the state in the general election. Had the North Carolina primary not been important, that organization probably would not have been built. Finally, the rift between Clinton and Obama was healed by the time of the convention, so fears that a divided party might result in electoral defeat proved to be unfounded.

The Republican Nomination

The Republican field had a diverse set of contenders, each of whom had a significant liability. Senator John McCain was considered one of the top contenders at the start of 2007, a full year before the start of the caucuses and primaries. He had been a candidate for the Republican nomination in 2000, during which time he showed considerable appeal to moderate, independent, and swing voters, which would make him a more formidable candidate in the general election. He had been a U.S. Senator for over two decades, and he had a distinguished military record, including being a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war. However, he was far from the favorite of the religious conservatives in the party, who regarded him with suspicion, although he attempted to strengthen his support within the Republican base during Bush's second term. Moreover, his campaign faltered during 2007, and many observers felt in late 2007 that he had little chance of capturing the nomination.

Fortunately for McCain, the other serious contenders for the Republican nomination also had significant weaknesses. Former New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani was at the top of the trial heat polls throughout much of 2007, largely on the basis of his strong name recognition. As mayor of New York City during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he received considerable favorable press for his handling of the aftermath of those events. However, he had liberal positions on several social issues, which put him at odds with key Republican groups. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney showed that he could raise money, and he did make a favorable impression in some early events during 2007. However, as governor, he had supported some moderate and liberal policies, which were not popular among Republican conservatives. Although he recanted his earlier positions and took a more conservative line on social issues, some doubted his sincerity. Others in the party were concerned about the fact that he was a Mormon. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was an energetic and entertaining campaigner, and he was popular among social conservatives, but he had difficulty raising sufficient money to be competitive. Senator Sam Brownback also attempted to appeal to social conservatives, but he failed to excite many voters. Some observers thought that former U.S. Senator (and television and film actor) Fred Thompson would be the favorite of social conservatives, but he proved to be a lackluster candidate. With every serious candidate having a significant liability, and with the social conservatives divided among at least three of the serious candidates, no clear favorite existed at the start of 2008.

The first major nomination event, the Iowa caucuses, went to Huckabee, who won about one-third of the vote, well ahead of second place finisher Romney, who had only about one-fourth of the vote (Espo and Glover 2008). The next major event, the New Hampshire primary, was won decisively by McCain, with Romney again finishing second. It now appeared that McCain and Huckabee were the two leading contenders. When McCain defeated Huckabee in South Carolina, it established him as the clear leader. South Carolina should have been a very hospitable state for a southern social conservative, such as Huckabee, so McCain's victory was interpreted as a real sign of strength for his candidacy. Romney's failure to win either Iowa or New Hampshire was a big disappointment to his supporters, given the time and money he invested in those two states, plus the fact that he was the past governor of a state that bordered New Hampshire. He never recovered from those early defeats, although he continued his campaign and managed to win several less important contests. Guiliani adopted the extremely unusual strategy of skipping Iowa and New Hampshire, focusing his attention on Florida, which he lost badly. He subsequently withdrew from the race and endorsed McCain.

In early February, 21 states held their primaries or caucuses on the same day (termed Super Tuesday). McCain won the most states, including California and New York. Romney won a number of states, but they were mostly small states that yielded few delegates. He retired from the race shortly afterwards and endorsed McCain. Huckabee won several southern states on Super Tuesday, and he now was the only serious challenger to McCain. Although Huckabee was a pesky opponent, one who excited social conservatives in the party, he had little chance of winning a majority of the delegates. By early March, McCain had collected a majority of the delegates, assuring him of the nomination. With eight months to go to the election, he began to focus his attention on unifying his party and attacking the Democrats.